Italian Soccer League schedule
The heavyweights have landed a succession of combinations. Juventus – back in the final four of the competition for the first time in 12 years - picked up an important 2-1 Champions League semifinal first-leg victory Tuesday against holders Real Madrid in Turin. Last week, the club claimed its fourth successive Italian league title after a 1-0 win at Sampdoria.
At the other end of the spectrum though, even the underdogs are getting their moment in the sun. In the second division, little-known Carpi – with a population of 67, 000 and a stadium capacity of 4, 000 – ensured their incredible promotion to the top flight after playing amateur soccer just 15 years ago.
Later this week, Fiorentina will face Sevilla in the Europa League semifinals – their best European performance in seven years. Also on Thursday, Napoli meet Dnipro at the same juncture of the competition – their best European performance since 1989.
But is all this positivity a short-lived spark or could Italian soccer genuinely be something to feel good about again? Recent history suggests that we shouldn't get too carried away with the renewed sense of purpose.
It's more than 20 years since Roberto Baggio infamously missed from the penalty spot in a World Cup final shootout with Brazil. Only in hindsight does it appear a defining moment for Italian soccer. Just weeks before, AC Milan had demolished Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League decider. Inter Milan were crowned UEFA Cup champions. The best players in the world all played in Serie A. It was the place to go and the league to watch. Yet, that World Cup defeat proved to be a death knell of sorts.
The following season, Ajax were crowned European champions, beating Milan. With the game scoreless and just six minutes away from extra time, the world's then-most expensive player, Gianluigi Lentini, was introduced as a substitute by the Rossoneri. A minute later, a relatively unknown 18-year-old named Patrick Kluivert, one of Ajax's second-half replacements, scored the winning goal for the Dutch side. It said so much.
Between 1995 and 2002, only one Italian team managed a Champions League title. And though Juventus appeared set to rule European soccer in the mid-’90s, their sole triumph (in 1996) was overshadowed by the final defeats they experienced in the two years that followed.
There was a brief renaissance. Milan made three finals in four years and won two of them. But then there came a devastating collapse.
In 2006, Calciopoli brought Italian soccer to its knees, shamed Serie A and stained the character of some of Europe's best-loved clubs. At the heart of the controversy was the alleged manipulation of refereeing assignments to favour Juventus. Other clubs were dragged into this mess, too – Milan and Fiorentina among them. The punishments were severe. Juventus were stripped of the league titles they won in 2005 and 2006 and were demoted to Serie B. The other offenders were slapped with massive points deductions. But the ramifications ran deep.